The Zamani Reader

A History Blog from a History Student



Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part II of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part II is called “Archaeological Sources,” 3-104.

CHRISTOPHER R. DECORSE AND SAM SPIERS. “A Tale of Two Polities: Socio-Political Transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World,” Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 27 (2009): 29-42.


This review paper is the first part of a two-part series about non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based upon a reading of five essays that provide case studies for working with sources in archaeology and material culture. To begin this paper, I would like to summarize what the anthropologist James Denbow concludes about archaeological source materials in his introduction to the “Archeological Sources” part of Sources and Methods in African History. Writing in the year 2004, Denbow states that the discipline of archaeology has traditionally “served history in a ‘validationist’ role,” meaning that practitioners often took their leads from the documentary record and engaged with archaeology as a way to track and confirm stories that they found in written sources.[1] By now, however, researchers are using archaeological methods in a way that is much more expansive. Instead of a supporting role, material culture plays an equal role alongside oral traditions and written records in the process of historical inquiry. Generally, this means acknowledging the fact that archaeology, like these other two modes of inquiry, suffers from “inherent biases and limitations.” It also means recognizing that archaeology has the potential not only to validate, but to amend old theses and even to propose new ones. [2]

Archaeology and the Study of African History – Conclusions from the Case Studies

For the study of African History more specifically, the rise of material culture as an equally valid mode of historical inquiry carries special meaning. The study of archaeology allows historians to move the geographic and temporal boundaries of analysis beyond areas that were only covered by literary sources. With archaeology, so-called “non-literate” times may be used as a vantage point from which to interpret the historical events of later eras that left behind written records. This is done in Laura Mitchell’s chapter on the spatial geography of Dutch, white settler-colonialism in the Cedarberg frontier of South Africa during the eighteenth century.[3] Mitchell uses mapping techniques to literally overlay sites of Khoisan material culture that date back to the Late Stone Age—identified mostly through rock art and the presence of stone tools—with land-grant data taken from the archives of the Dutch East India Company. What Mitchell discovers is that these maps occupy the exact same spaces. Her research suggests that scholars should not understand the colonial war that Khoisan people waged against Dutch settlers in 1739 as a general confrontation over contested resources, but as an engagement over the right to access and control very “specific pieces of land” that were both environmentally strategic and spiritually sacred to the Khoisan people.[4]

In addition to expanding the geographic and temporal bounds of African History, archaeology allows historians to effectively combat lingering stereotypes about the primitive, primordial, or unchanging African society. This theme comes out in several of this week’s readings. Akinwumi Ogundiran’s piece, for example, brings a much greater definition to the precolonial history of the Yoruba-Edo region (today western Nigeria and Benin). Ogundiran uses the archaeological record to outline “six cultural historical phases” that defined the area from 500 BC to 1800 AD. The result is a “long-term chronological scheme” that historians can now use for “understanding the origins, changes, and continuities of the cultural institutions in the region over time.”[5] Ogundiran bases his historical schema off of changes that are visible in the material culture of the region. One piece of evidence, for example, that testifies to the ascendancy of a confederacy-style political structure in the region during what Ogundiran defines as the Early Formative Period (500-800 AD) is the proliferation of defensive embankments, ditches, and ramparts. To mention just one additional example, Ogundiran tracks Ile-Ife’s rise to political and cultural dominance during the Classical Period  (1000-1400 AD) through its monopolization and exportation of several new artistic traditions, like terracotta ceramics, potsherd architecture, brass casting, and glass-bead production.[6] Continue reading “Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana”

Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part III of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part III is called “Documentary Sources,” 169-238.

PHILIP D. CURTIN ET AL. Part I of Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. Part I is called “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century, 3-139, omitting the section on Olaudah Equiano, 60-98.

STEPHEN D. BEHRENDT, A.J.H. LATHAM, AND DAVID NORTHRUP. Part II of The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Part II is called “Extracts from the Diary of Antera Duke,” 133-220.


The main readings for this week are documentary sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. Two of these sources were written by West African peoples themselves, while the third was written by a European man yet based off of his interactions with a West African. Additionally, two of the sources appear as excerpts in Africa Remembered, an edited volume compiled by the historian Philip Curtin. They come from the book’s first part, entitled “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century.”[1] The first source is the published slave narrative of a Fulbe Muslim trader named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1734). The second is a series of letters from a Fanti missionary, slave factory chaplain, and sharity school teacher named Philip Quaque (1766-1811). In addition, the diary of a prominent Efik chief and slave trader named Antera Duke Ephrim constitutes the third source (1785-1788). Taken together, these three documentary sources not only represent different regions of Africa but also different experiences with the slave trade and different genres of writing. Finally, chapters taken from Sources and Methods in African History, compiled by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, provide context for analyzing these narratives.

In his introduction to the “Documentary Sources” section of Sources and Methods in African History, Thomas Spear explains why historians of Africa have been more reluctant to critically engage with written primary sources than scholars of other fields.[2] Documentary sources for studying African history, particularly from the long eighteenth-century, are both rare and problematic. As the African philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe has demonstrated in a detailed theoretical and historiographical critique, called The Invention of Africa, these sources often reflect ‘Western epistemologies’ such as ‘discourses on African primitiveness.’ These epistemological frameworks typically fail to engage with how African peoples thought of themselves and their own societies.[3] As Spear explains, the problematic nature of documentary sources has led African historians to devote their energies to developing alternative materials for understanding he African past. These innovative departures are epitomized by scholarship like that of Jan Vansina. An historian and anthropologist of Africa, Vansina devoted much of his career to developing a guide for fieldworkers who want to employ oral traditions as a primary source for understanding both the past and present of African societies. Vansina’s work, written up in 1959 and then updated in 1985, has demonstrated that oral traditions are a complex, diverse, and necessary component of historical research in African societies. They are not just a medium to be turned to when written materials are unavailable.[4]

Inspired by the innovative methods of anthropologists like Vansina and the cogent critiques of philosophers like Mudimbe, many scholars of Africa are starting to revisit the historical potential of documentary source materials, especially when these materials are interpreted in new ways. In a series of three essays on written source materials of the nineteenth-century, Christian Jennings, Kristin Mann, and Meredith McKittrick offer case studies that suggest why “documentary sources remain vital to our historical understanding, no matter who produced them and how and why they did so.”[5] These authors reaffirm the view that, just like oral traditions, written source materials can spark historical revelations about African societies when historians approach them with thoughtful questions. For example, in revisiting early Church records from East Africa in the 1840s and 1850s, Jennings demonstrates that missionaries had a much better understanding of the cultures of Massai and Iloikop pastoralists than later historians were willing to concede. The missionaries had interpreted these Rift Valley societies through the lens of their own prejudices, like Mudimbe explains, but they also based their ethnographic work on local informants from within the communities. As a result, when their works are carefully studied, they have the potential to affect some of our most longstanding historical assumptions—in this case, about the evolution of Massai identity. It is with this view in mind that we turn to our three readings from the eighteenth century.[6]

Continue reading “Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke”

Syllabus for Independent Study — “West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century”

Dear readers,

The 2017-2018 school year is starting this Wednesday, September 27. Even though I completed all of my graduate seminar work last spring, I will be taking one more class this fall. This class is an independent-study course (also known as a directed-readings course) in order to fulfill the requirements for my minor in African History. Getting a minor is one of the three main benchmarks for third-year students in the PhD program at Davis. (The other two benchmarks are passing the comprehensive examinations and proposing the dissertation prospectus.)

Every student in the UC Davis doctoral History program must complete a minor. To do this, students select a field of History that is different from their major field. Then, they find a professor who is willing to supervise their minor project. The student meets with that professor for a designated period of time–usually a quarter or so–and they discuss the contours of the field while they read some of its major works. Afterward, the student conceives of and writes up a syllabus for a hypothetical undergraduate course in that field, as well as a “justification paper” that explains the choices they made in creating the syllabus. He or she then submits both of these materials to their minor professor and, hopefully, the professor approves of them and grants the student their minor. (By the way, a student cannot move on to their dissertation prospectus unless he or she has successfully completed the minor, so this part of the process is kind of crucial.)

Overall, the purpose of the minor field is to make students more versatile, both in their knowledge of History as a discipline and in their prospects for a job after graduation. Studying a second field in detail gives students greater perspective on their own field of research. Also, having a syllabus in a secondary field ensures that graduating students will have another option about what they can teach once they are placed in a new job. As I am told, the syllabus is a helpful tool to have when job hunting. Obviously, universities hire new faculty with the intention of having them teach in their major-field areas; yet, a graduate might come off as a more-competitive candidate in the interview room if he or she can present and explain a syllabus of their own creation for another field of History entirely. Ideally, the university would see an added benefit in hiring a professor who feels comfortable teaching in more than one field of History.

So, what am I doing? At the end of last year, I finally came to the conclusion that I would pursue my minor in African History. I approached one of the UC Davis History professors who specializes in African History at the beginning of the summer, and I asked if they would supervise my minor project. Thankfully, they agreed, and they recommended that we take this independent-study course together to prepare. I spent the last month of the summer drafting a syllabus for this course and, after some revisions with the professor, a working version is finally complete. I have attached the syllabus to the bottom of this post for you to see. The course is called “West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century.” I have removed some of the sensitive information, like the name of the professor as well as the time and dates of our meetings. Nonetheless, you will be able to see all of the good stuff: our overall vision for the course, the themes we have decided to focus on, and the works we have decided to read. I might be providing some week-to-week video updates on the course throughout the fall. We’ll see…

Thanks for reading. Best wishes,

West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century — An Independent Study Proposal (TZR Version 2017)


Review of Ogenga Otunnu’s Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979

OGENGA OTUNNU. Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979. African Histories and Modernities. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. xv, 369. $109.00. Hardback. ISBN: 978-3-319-33155-3.

According to Ugandan native, historian of Africa, and scholar of global refugee and forced migration studies, Ogenga Otunnu, nations of the world can be classified according to four typologies of state power. They can be despotically and infrastructurally strong, despotically and infrastructurally weak, despotically strong but infrastructurally weak, and, most ideally, despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. Since its creation as a predatory, kleptocratic, despotic, and conflict-ridden state at the onset of the African colonial period, in 1890, Uganda has oscillated among the first three typologies but it has never achieved the fourth. In Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979, Otunnu explains this situation by analyzing the history of Uganda from the precolonial period to the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. He argues that Uganda suffers from a severe and persistent crisis of legitimacy or a “legitimation deficit.” This deficit is shared by the state, its institutions, its incumbents, and their challengers. It is the result of factors that are contemporary and historical as well as foreign and domestic. Most importantly, this deficit remains “the most significant factor accounting for the intense political violence” in the country today (1, 321). Addressing this crisis is vital to stemming political violence and turning Uganda into a rights-based and developed nation that is inclusive, representative, and respectful of its citizens.

The work under review here is the first installment in a two-volume series about the origins, persistence, and effects of political violence in Uganda. (Otunnu’s second book has the same title, is due out in 2017, and will take the narrative from 1979 to 2016.) The dates featured in this title—1890 to 1979—form the core of Otunnu’s chronological focus. Three eighty-page chapters explore Uganda’s colonial era (1890-1962), the Obote regime (1962-1971), and the Amin regime (1971-1979). And yet, Otunnu wisely sets the stage for these three main sections with an opening chapter that surveys the history of several polities in precolonial Uganda, from roughly 1500 to 1889. The societies analyzed here—Bunyoro-Kitara, Buganda, and Acoli—showcase the diversity of social and political structures that were inherited and/or disrupted by the British colonial regime. Otunnu traces, for instance, how a kingdom like Buganda evolved form an independent monarchy in the precolonial period to an agent or “mask” of British imperial power in the colonial period. Similarly, Otunnu demonstrates a traditional system of legitimacy that the Ugandan state has yet to successfully revive. As he argues, the many precolonial and decentralized polities of Acoli in the north fit the ideal model of a state that was despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. As such, Acoli was characterized by democratic traditions and practices, government accountability to civil society, widespread feelings of legitimacy, and a lack of both corruption and violence.

Continue reading “Review of Ogenga Otunnu’s Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979”

Review of Rebecca Shumway’s The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Rebecca Shumway. The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011. xii + 244 pp. $90.00. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.

In The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589, Toby Green wrote, “There was not one Atlantic slave trade, but many trades wreaking many different effects…” Indeed, Shumway’s first book and refurbished dissertation, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is a study of one such trade and the ethnolinguistic culture it allegedly produced. Shumway uses archives from England and Ghana, oral histories from Ghana, and secondary sources to tell the history of the coastal Fante during the long eighteenth century. Today, the Fante people constitute 2 million of Ghana’s population of 21 million, and historiography typically dates their origin to a paper government—the Fante Confederation—established in 1868 to resist British colonization. In this text, however, Shumway argues that the Confederation had a predecessor, a decentralized republic that she calls the “Coastal Coalition.” Her book uncovers the story of this coalition. Her thesis is that both the coalition and modern Fante identity cannot be understood without reference to three contexts that shaped Fanteland during the long eighteenth century: the unique legacy of the international gold trade; the imperial expansion of the Asante Kingdom in the forested interior; and the rise, peak, and fall of the transatlantic slave trade on the coast.[1]

The Fante occupied a region of southern or coastal Ghana from the Pra River to Accra. It is known today as Fanteland but was an 100-mile stretch of the central Gold Coast in the eighteenth century. Before the late-1600s, Fanteland imported slaves and exported gold, first to Western Sudan and then also to European traders. In this period, the region contained small, independent, and feuding kingships, all culturally and linguistically distinct. Then, Fanteland drastically changed its relationship to the Atlantic World by embracing slave exportation. What followed were wars in which one group—the Borbor Fante—conquered Fanteland to forge the coalition. Ostensibly, the coalition served three purposes: to help Fanteland people cope with heightened violence from the slave trade, to protect their privileges as brokers of that same trade, and to defend against conquest by the Asante, who were also their suppliers. The coalition matured by the 1750s and had a “golden age” until 1806/1807, when it was destroyed by an Asante invasion and the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade. According to Shumway, the coalition was characterized by a lack of centralized political authority, a new warlord elite and priesthood, the dominance of an urban creole merchant class at the African-controlled port of Anomabo, a dissemination of the Fante language, and a transformation of pre-existing “social and cultural institutions,” especially a religious shrine of the Nananom Mpow and the commoner militia units called asafo.[2]

What are Shumway’s main contributions? First, she restores Anomabo in Gold Coast historiography. This port has been overshadowed by Cape Coast and Elmina, which performed much less business. Also, unlike Randy Sparks’ recent book on Anomabo (Where the Negroes Are Masters), Shumway balances internal (read: African) and external (read: European) influences. Meanwhile, she adheres to the thesis of John Thornton (Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World) that Europeans shaped yet had no power to control African commerce. Second, Shumway restores non-imperial peoples as well as non-slavers to the story of the Gold Coast, Africa, and the slave trade. She writes, “the majority of people in West and West Central Africa” resembled Fanteland because they lived in “decentralized or stateless societies” that were neither subjugated nor defined solely by their roles as captors and/or captives. Nonetheless, the literature has privileged empires like Asante. Third, Shumway restores the slave trade and the 1700s to national historiography, which has emphasizes Ghana’s earlier reputation as a gold exporter and later reputation as the birthplace of Pan-Africanism and decolonization. In this sense, Shumway picks up where Ray Kea left off in Settlements, Trade and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast.[3]

How persuasive is Shumway’s argument? While I am convinced that Fanteland was shaped by the three contexts mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, I am less convinced Shumway has accurately described the “Coastal Coalition.” Is it a network “of dependency and mutual obligation” and a “remarkable process of cultural adaptation and community formation,” as she argues, or more of a Fantee empire of territorial expansion to contrast with that of the Asante? Of course, this latter perspective is the traditional one. Understandably, there are problems with both of Shumway’s main categories of evidence. It is hard to know if European records are accurately describing a unified “Fantee nation,” or if they are projecting the idea on a diverse area. Conversely, with the oral histories, it is hard to know whether Shumway is correct to attribute their content to the eighteenth century rather than later periods, as others have done. Regardless, perhaps the book’s biggest weakness (in the opinion of this reviewer) is that Shumway makes a regional claim by giving the most space to one group (the Borbor Fante) and one port (Anomabo). Her brief and final chapter on the broad “social and cultural changes” in the region is certainly the most speculative, but it is also the most innovative and compelling.[4]


[1] Toby Green, The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa , 1300-1589 (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14; Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011), 2, 11-12, 153, 157.

[2] Ibid. 53, 108, 132.

[3] Ibid. 4, 8, 43.

[4] Ibid. 12, 88, 89-90.

Review of History of the Upper Guinea Coast by Walter Rodney

WALTER RODNEY. History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (Oxford Studies in African Affairs)New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. ix, 283. $7.00.

History of the Upper Guinea Coast is the refurbished dissertation of the late Guyanese historian and political activist, Walter Rodney. Originally written in 1966 for a PhD in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the text is a chronological/conceptual history of a section of the West African coast (between the Gambia and Cape Mount) from its first contact with Hispano-Portuguese sailors in the mid-fifteenth century until approximately 1800. Continue reading “Review of History of the Upper Guinea Coast by Walter Rodney”

Review of Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World by John Thornton

JOHN THORNTON.Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2d Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xxxvi, 340. $37.00.


Originally published in 1992, Africa and Africans was the second monograph written by the American historian, Africanist, and current professor at Boston University, John Thornton. Begun as a reference work for non-specialists in 1984, the text was intended to bring “Africa into the Braudelian scheme of Atlantic history,” and, in doing so, revise dated anthropologists like Melville Herskovits, Eurocentric scholars like Pierre Chaunu, and dependency theorists like Walter Rodney. The original work addressed “Atlantic Africa” between 1400 and 1680. Aside from a new chapter that carries this analysis through the eighteenth century, Thornton has left the second edition unchanged. Continue reading “Review of Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World by John Thornton”

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